Tuesday, October 30, 2012

To Hurt or to Heal

All of the talk of rehabilitation revolutions are inevitably futile as ,long as we continue to have our fetish with imprisonment. Prison takes people who are often damaged and – as a matter of deliberate policy – damages them further before releasing them back into an indifferent society. Well, indifferent until the next victim is generated.

Punishment is a lodestone, politically at least, of the justice system. That “punishment” may well make a bad situation worse is completely ignored. Which is one reason why the criminal justice system is held in contempt by all parties, defendants as well as victims. After passing through a brutal process, no one involved emerges either satisfied or feeling better for the process.

Prison damages. After a crime that has caused harm, our response is a process which adds further harm. It takes a person (mostly a man) and separates them from their families. They may lose their relationships, placing higher burdens on State benefits and increasing the chances of their children wandering from the path of a decent life. They lose their job, maybe a whole professional career and will find it extremely difficult to return to a productive meaningful life. The costs to the individuals is huge and the cost to society is ridiculously high. The whole machine is geared at causing harm and it does so with brutal efficiency.

Throwing the word “rehabilitation into this seems quite ridiculous. It is the equivalent of blinding a man and then handing him a map of the road back to good. It is a nonsense, and we will reap the costs of that for so long as any policy maker suggests that prison can be even remotely a positive experience. Which is not to say that there are no alternatives; only that we, as a society, prefer the government to deal with the social trash rather than getting our hands dirty.

We should reclaim our criminals, if for no other reason than the government is doing such a lousy job with them. We could render imprisonment a niche in the criminal justice system, an odd relic that we may wonder why we fetishized in the first place. As a 200 year old experiment, the evidence is in – prison doesn’t work and so communities should accept the challenge of dealing with its most difficult members.

Canadian communities found themselves thrown into action some years ago in response to a sex offender panic. The government has altered sentencing laws which meant that sex offenders served every day of their sentence and then released into the community. Without supervision. It served a populist cause but saw communities having to deal with high risk sex offenders all by themselves.

It was the Mennonite church which stepped into the gap in the first instance and created a scheme which protected the community from the criminal and the criminal from the community. This became “Circles of Support and Accountability”. Short of a new offence being detected, government was out of the loop. And this concept was such a success that the K imported it, albeit in a different legal framework, to some success
It is a labour intensive form of community response. If necessary, with the highest risk ex prisoners, volunteers accompany them for 24 hours a day, challenging their behaviours whilst also assisting them to reintegrate and rebuild their lives. It is a deal from which everyone benefits.

There is no reason why we cannot respond to all but an extreme handful of criminals in this way, retaining them in the community. Except we chose not to; we prefer to write government a cheque to deal with the problems on our behalf. Except we are not getting anything approaching a decent return for our money and communities feel divorced from the criminal justice system.

Criminals grow up in communities, they live in them and they then harm them. It is in communities that our best chance of reclaiming people lays. To shrug off our difficult members and hide them behind high walls is short sighted, expensive, and ultimately futile.

Communities should reclaim their errant members and challenge them, supervise them and reintegrate them. Criminals are not a separate species or islands apart and fracturing their tenuous connections to their communities – as imprisonment does – only subverts any hope of a future with fewer victims. We need to decide to heal the wounds of crime, not to inflict further hurt.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Happy Campers?

The suicide rate in prisons is rising. The murder rate in prisons is rocketing. And the reoffending rate is shameful. And yet what the Minister for Prisons is most concerned about is the minutiae of the prison regime. Whilst the ineffective and expensive system rots from the core, Ministers roll out of bed with their main focus being the TV’s available to prisoners.

Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said:  “I want to ensure that the public have confidence in the prison system. It is crucial that they are assured that any privileges earned in prison are gained through hard work and appropriate behaviour.  I am looking closely at the policy around the incentives scheme for prisoners, which has not been fully reviewed since 1999. There may be clear and important operational reasons for this policy but I want to be clear that these incentives are pitched at the right level and that they have credibility with the public”.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2224620/War-holiday-camp-jail-perks-Prisons-Minister-Jeremy-Wright-calls-privileges-earned-hard-work-good-behaviour.html#ixzz2AhS5mR2e

For the uninitiated, the regime of privileges that determines the minutiae of prisoners lives, from the number of hours they have on family visits to the amount of pennies to spend on stamps, is called the IEPS – Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme. It splits privileges into three levels. The lowest is Basic - often used as an unofficial punishment regime outside of the formal disciplinary system – which affords the prisoner little more than the Statutory minimum of facilities. It is a regime of perpetual bang up, the opportunity to spend only £2.50 per week, and one hour a month on visits. try holding your relationships together, your family, with that level of contact – and it being known that stable family life is a major factor in reoffending.
The level above is Standard. It is the level that all prisoners begin at and affords the ability to spend some £15 per week, two visits per month and in-cell TV with 9 channels. Poor behaviour results in being dropped to Basic. Good behaviour results in being elevated to the top level of privileges, Enhanced. Again, there is an increase in the amount of money to be spent (always if the prisoner has it, it doesn’t come from the prison), more visits, access to a wider range of jobs and so on.

The idea of this scheme is that poor behaviour is penalised, good behaviour is rewarded. On the face of it not a wholly outrageous plan…. Until you look at the mechanisms for allocating privileges. This is based on “wing reports”, that is comments written by staff. This is a very, very unjust system with staff liable to be variable in their views of certain behaviours and it is a scheme ripe for abuse. During my latter time in prison I found myself demoted from Enhanced for having a slice of bread on my locker (my supper) and for failing to attend a Healthcare appointment (which I had previously cancelled). This cost me my outside job and home leaves for three months in Open prison.

The loss in quality of life that lays in the hands of staff is immense and essentially unregulated. As such, the IEP Scheme is despised by prisoners and used as a simple way to harass prisoners by lazy staff. The formal disciplinary system, deeply flawed as it is, at least carries the patina of due process and judicial oversight. The IEP Scheme is merely a screws word against a cons. The inherent danger in this is obvious to any but Prisons Ministers.

As time has passed then the privileges variously permitted to various groups of prisoners has developed. Similarly, what was for the elite in society slowly becomes more commonplace then certain privileges within prison changes. The introduction of TV’s in the late 1990’s is the obvious change and lightening rod for most comment. Prior to this, prisoners were allowed only radio’s, and battery powered, Medium wave only at that.

The issue of TV’s blinds people to the reality of cell life. With work places for only around a third of the population, most prisoners will spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells. Most have a mental illness. Many have families to brood upon. Without TV’s, just how are these people meant to occupy themselves? Map the rates of suicide and self harm against the introduction of TV’s and the importance of this medium becomes more apparent and significant. TV’s have to be earned through good behaviour and rented from the prison at £1 per week, with only 9 channels permitted.

The gap in perceptions between the reality of prison life and the ideas of some commentators is revealed by the likes of Edward Boyd, from the think-tank Policy Exchange, who says that privileges such as “free gym use (how could prisoners pay, I wonder?) and televisions in cells should be made available only to those inmates who work”.  There isn’t enough work available in prisons, because investment has never been made in the infrastructure. How can a prisoner earn a privilege through work when there is no work? I hope that Boyd provides a quick solution to that conundrum. Like any Victorian reformer, Boys attributes miraculous powers of transformation to prisoners being used as slave labour – “The cornerstone of reform must be hard work. It will make prison not only a better deterrent for criminals but also a far more successful intervention to stop future criminal behaviour.’ This has never proven to be true in any nations prisons at any time in history, and signifies a desperate scrabble to interject into a conversation without actually having any grasp of the subject.

There are dangers to this Ministerial meddling. If he attempts to remove privileges which prisoners have earned under the current system, he will inevitably face a wave of discontent for moving the goalposts. The idea of marching into 80,000 cells and removing the televisions is risible, purely because there are insufficient riot squads available.

The point of this ministerial policy burp is a mystery, unless it is pure “get tough” politics. Fine, that’s what politicians do. But when this threatens to overlook the real issues of reoffending and suicide then it reveals a Minister desperate for a soundbite but lacking any coherent vision.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Longest Day

There have been many unusual days of late.... The last one encompassed a meeting around miscarriages of justice - the first building I've needed a clip-on ID badge to wander, followed by a bite and a drink with the ex producer of Rough Justice and the ex head of the Metropolitan Police's intelligence unit. This is not to deny that interesting days never happened in prison, but the sheer variety of activities that can be found in a "free" day is so much more eclectic.

It was a long day in London and I was tired, deciding to forego my usual peripatetic use of the Tube in the evening for the train home. With an inflamed tendons in my shoulder and elbow, placing my laptop in a luggage rack as I lurked in the crowded vestibule within sight didn't strike me as being an outrageous risk.

I was wrong. Approaching Didcot I stood aside as hordes crowded the aisles to leave my view of my bag obscured. And as the train began to move again I noticed it was missing.... After searching high and low I presented myself to the train manager who made a note and managed to give me the wrong number of the transport police.

Dumped at my home station in the dark and wet I was seriously hacked off. As well as a new netbook, my phone charger and a bundle of confidential papers were in my bag. Realistically - despite being in possession of a Crime Number and a letter from Victim Support - none of it will ever be found or returned.

Of course, this isn't the first time I have been a victim of crime. You don't stagger through 32 years in prison without the occasional bump into the unpleasant. As ever, being on the crappy end of the crime stick leads to anger, frustration and a bout of contemplation.

The first, and still greatest, challenge to my views on crime and punishment was provoked by the death of my sister many years ago. Like many victims of crime, I spent an improbable number of hours dreaming up ghastly and inventive torments for her killer and that phase lasted several months. Until it dawned upon me that my hatred and frustration could corrode away at my spirit and add to my grief. It certainly didn't help me in any way.

After much contemplation I realised that all I wanted from my sisters killer was for her to recognise the enormity of her actions, to look into her eyes and know that she carried the weight of my sisters death. Sending her to prison was utterly futile.

Who stole my bag? The temptation is to alight upon the youngsters loitering in the train vestibule. hile not all of the young are criminal, a depressing amount of criminals are young. Was it an opportunist grab for an item to sell for the next bag of smack? e will never know.

If the git is ever caught, could I actually stand up in Court and help try to send him to prison? No. Whatever mess his life is in, sending him down would make it a hundred times worse, and at great expense to boot.

An apology and explanation would be nice though. And this is the strength of Restorative Justice approaches. Criminals do as they do partly because they distance themselves from their victims; justify the likes of theft by either not considering the disruption to the victim or minimising it - "the insurance covers it". With the RJ process, the crim is compelled to peel away this facile view and face the reality of the person behind their crime, the people they have harmed in whatever way. And that alone is often a remarkably powerful motivator for reflection and change.

If "my" thief is ever discovered, I would hope that the response would be to aid him to repair the harm to me, whilst simultaneously help him to sort his life out. I fear the criminal justice system just isn't that sensible.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Not the Channel 5 News!

Ed here.  Ben was invited to take part in this evening's Channel 5 News. It was a last minute rush but do-able.  The taxi turned up on time and Ben arrived at the station to buy a ticket but with not enough cash on him to do so.  The guy in the ticket office refused to accept a card payment over the phone - First Great Western.

Not wanting to risk getting on without a valid ticket Ben had to go back home. Had the Cooperative Bank not turned down his application for a bank account for no reason, had he not been refused JSA, also for no reason, and had the guy in the train ticket office not been so unreasonable we would all be seeing him again to telly this evening!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Perpetual Lie

One of the most pernicious and repeated arguments for the use of prison is the minimalist one - at least whilst crims are behind the walls, they aren't committing crimes.

This is a belief hawked around by columnists, politicians and some rather poor criminologists. And I daresay that it chimes well with a "common sense" perception amongst a swathe of the public.

The only problem is, it isn't true. there's no mental or conceptual slight of hand here, it is just a straightforward fact. Like gravity. Putting criminals in prison does not stop them offending whilst inside.

The crime rate within prisons is a dirty little secret that no one talks about. Hundreds of thousands of assaults are merely a beginning. The murder rate is skyrocketing compared to the wider community. As for thefts, most are dealt with far away from official eyes. Criminals in prison are as wedded to their work ethic as out on the streets.

Imprisoning people is a serious business. If it must be done then let it be done on sound reasoning. To do so on the basis of lies and laziness is itself criminal.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


I have just received my first ever voting papers! Alas, they are for the elections for the new Police and Crime Commissioners....

I could have some fun by loudly supporting the candidate I least like - "murderer supports candidate X..." That should help the opposition, don't you think?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ancient prison saying

How can you tell when the governor is lying? His lips move...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Proper Job

I can now say that as of November I will be employed by the Howard League as a consultant policy advisor....

Will say more over the weekend. Happy Ben!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Crime, Punishment and Irony


Travelling back from London today my laptop case, including laptop and papers, was stolen off the train. This leaves me in a very bad position, as I was in the middle of projects leading to good employment.

The irony of my becoming a victim of crime is something I will deal with tomorrow! In the meantime, if anyone has a laptop they can spare to get to me ASAP, could you please contact me through the blog email - bengunn12612@googlemail.com. I will repay you from my  first cheque, due in about six weeks.

And yes, I am livid!

Monday, October 15, 2012


Bureaucracy, that oft maligned collective of processes and people upon whom civilisation rests....Is making my life just a tad awkward.

Oddly, given my cynical outlook, the only part of The Machine which is working at some level of competence is the Probation Service. As they are charged with ensuring that I don't run amok, you may say that this is a good thing. As I am without my weekend in Cornwall or Spain, I may beg to differ but outcomes aside, the process is functioning.

The other two bureaucracies that loom large in my vista are the Jobcentre and the banking industry. The Jobcentre have been awfully polite, given me no attitude but been utterly stumped by my lack of a National Insurance Number. Week after week I have been turning up and signing on but not a penny has come my way- and I regard these arrangements as being thoroughly reciprocal. They expect stuff from me, they should deliver on their part. Perhaps I'm odd but that seems fair....

Until the day that they farmed me out to some private company. The Government, bless 'em, altered their policy earlier this year so that unemployed ex-cons get shoveled onto the same schemes as the long term unemployed. I believe that I pointed out at the time, rather sharply, that the reason so many of us were unemployed was that society treated us like lepers and being forced through all of the courses in the world wouldn't alter employers perceptions. The problem isn't me, it's them.

So now my benefits rest in the hands of a government contractor. And they are equally bemused by the lack of an NI number. And so I was pointed in the direction of an office in Bristol where I was impelled to cough up every and any piece of ID available - prison ID cards, Life Licence, you name it. Nothing that couldn't be done at my local Jobcentre without taking up a whole day and a lot of money in travel. Only to be told at the end that it would take three weeks to decide whether to give me a NI number!

In the meanwhile, no money for Ben. Seven weeks on £46. Which leads me to the much maligned banking sector. As a broad proposition, banks have laughed at my attempts to open an account, again because of my lack of an identity. All this changed with a very helpful woman at a local bank who took the time to sit down, go through my meagre collection of documents, and shepherd them past headquarters. It looks as if I will soon the the possessor of a basic bank account. A start.

In my previous existence my every move depended in some way upon a bureaucracy. Food, water, light, toilet paper, visits, phone calls...all depended on  a screw doing his job. The bureaucratic machine was not at some distance removed, in the nearest town or up the road. The Machine existed in the cell doorway, up close and ugly, woven into the bricks and bars. It pervaded the very air.

Perhaps "liberty" in some modern philosophical sense, is a function of how far one is able to move in the world before one bumps into the electric fence of bureaucracy? And that, therefore, liberty is not an absolute but a decidedly relative state of existence.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


As I am now blogging first hand, it's fair to expect me to respond to comments on a more frequent and ad hoc basis. That is part of the blogging experience, is it not?

Alas, every time I try to leave a comment of my own, it vanishes. Quite what the tech problem is, I have yet to work it out. Once I do, brace yourselves!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Freedom and Censorship

Freedom is something longed for by those who lack it, yet a nebulous conception that slips through the gaps in the mind when one attempts to grasp it. Is Freedom the absence of constraints? Or a suppression of fundamental needs? Or is it more positive, is Freedom the ability to move in whatever direction one chooses?

I am driven to ponder the nature of freedom all the more now that I am "free". The parenthesis inevitably exists due to the legal nature of my freedom - Life Licence. My liberty is conditional. And this causes some difficulties, setting aside weekends in Cornwall or Spanish holidays.

Paragraph 5 of my Life License stipulates I must seek prior permission before engaging in any work, paid or unpaid. And this is causing some befuddlement among my Probation supervisors. It seems that few of their charges are called upon to "consult" for various people or organisations, or who blog, or who have the odd piece in The Guardian. That I do all of these things is the source of confusion, stretching what is usually regarded as being plain and simple "work" into new areas for my keepers. I cheekily asked as, during my last Probation chat I exchanged emails with a Guardian editor - just how many Lifers are in this situation?

The essence of the most pertinent dispute with Probation centres on my writing. I have never, ever asked permission to write a single word. And there were more than a couple of prison staff who felt that this stance was in some way offensive, as if they should hold control of my mind as well as my body. Regardless of the consequences, the subtle and not so subtle pressure, when I sat to write in my cell it was without a moment's regard for my keepers.

On the day of my release I continued this tradition. The Guardian commissioned a piece to be written that day and I obliged. A fee changed hands for this effort, a standard arrangement for any freelance writing. And in that casual, unthinking way I managed to breach my Licence within hours of release!

The latest comment piece raises the same issues. Writing for publication, whether paid or not, constitutes "work". And work must be agreed beforehand by my supervisors. I obviously think that this whole condition in Life Licences is a nonsense but in relation to writing it is dangerous nonsense.

Because what I am being asked to do (on pain of being recalled to prison) is to clear beforehand anything I may write for the public gaze. A more fraught potential for censorship I cannot imagine in a democratic society.

A Small Comparison

As Charlie the mastiff shot past me, I grabbed for his chain - and seriously aggravated old shoulder and elbow injuries. Several stone of excited dog are not something to get in front of!

After hours of suffering pain in the way only men can, the Editor dragged me to the local surgery. We had an emergency appointment and a prescription for opiate-based painkillers all in under 30 minutes.

When I had this injury back at the nick, it took two days to get Healthcare to even talk to me and the result was the standard Lazarus mixture of Ibuprofen and paracetamol.

The official line is that healthcare provision for prisoners is broadly equivalent to that received in the community. I can tell you now, with greater authority, that is a lie of monumental proportions.

The difference lays in two factors. Firstly, prison medical staff work on the assumption that we are all lying bastards just trying to pull some scam or other when we appear to be ill. And secondly, prison healthcare providers scheme with prison managers to avoid giving cons prescription drugs lest they make drug testing slightly more awkward.

Result? I sat there in miserable pain. I sit here slightly woozy but functional. This is better.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Cheese Index

In times of war, famine and other straightened circumstances there seems to be a premium on butter. The same applies in prison, although what is served as "butter" is stretching the term beyond reason.

Small square catering tubs about an inch square, filled with some vegetable derived spread of unknown constituents; these are portioned out as if they were sprinkled with some precious metal. Hence the perpetual call on the landings, "Has anyone got any butter...?" For being a hungry bunch and not fed well, buttered bread or crackers fill a gap for the night.

All of this came to me as a potent mark in my change of status as I stood in the kitchen making toast. With a full butter-dish I realised that I no longer had to spread the butter micrometers thick.

The daily life of the free man is comprised of a thousand unnoticed instances such as this.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Career Change

There are those days when time sometimes seems to disappear, vanish in the drudgery of "stuff". Today I awoke with a mental list of things needing to be done and those not involving work, money or writing stay in that part of my mind labelled "ah well, got to be done". Highlights on that list include the physiotherapist (my back) and then my weekly session with Probation. The physio tells me that I have to learn how to breath again in a different way...makes me wonder quite how I've stayed alive all these years.

Having said Nein, Nope, Never Gonna Happen, to my request for a long weekend in Cornwall then I didn't have high hopes for my plea to accept an invitation for a quiet few days up in the Spanish mountains....And I wasn't surprised by their response - "local policy" says no foreign travel in my first year. Hmmm, may take a quick legal opinion on that one! They did give me good news on whether I could take forward a job opportunity though, and I can say more about it late next week I hope.

And I left Probation with a conundrum. When is "work", "work"? Because even voluntary work I do has to be okayed by them. So when someone threw me some paperwork and asked for my opinion, (no fee!), and I unthinkingly said I'd be pleased to pitch in.....turns out I may be in breach of my Licence. Oops. So can I help the neighbours mow their lawn, or is that "work"? Or answer any of the phonecalls and emails asking for this or that, free out of my large store of opinions? Probation are getting back to me on this. Can't wait. They may get me out of some housework!

This lot having taken a large chunk out of my working day I was looking forward to getting home, logging on and being productive. Along the way I picked up a DVD player and a large raincloud which hampered my every attempt to make a rollup.

After a mile walk from the bus in the rain I found myself standing, dripping and befuddled, at my door. The key wouldn't work. Twisting and turning, jiggling and bobbing, the damn thing just wouldn't unlock. Feeling rather miffed as well as sorry for myself I rang the Editor. "It just takes some jiggling and patience", she said and so I continued to bob and weave with Chubbs finest. It was, Dear Reader, a porky - as she left, the Editor had locked the door with the secondary lock, the one I thought we had stopped using.

Hmm. Faced with a locked door and pouring rain I retreated to the pergola for a fag and a ponder. I sat dripping and smoking, with Henley the cat seeming to share my broad disgust with the situation as he sheltered from the rain under my chair. Again I called the Ed., suggesting I climb through a particular window. She was adamantly against. And I was equally certain that sitting in the rain until she returned in 6 hours time was really, really not ideal.

To the neighbours. The only person in the immediate vicinity who knows my identity, she was more than happy to cough up a ladder, knife, and assurance to back me up if someone saw me and called the Old Bill. Armed and desperate, the ladder against the wall and I assaulted the bedroom window... Have you ever tried to break into your own house but look as if you are doing something completely innocent? It isn't easy...

Prodding, poking, writhing and twisting, I finally persuaded the window to open and squeezed myself into the house and out of the rain. And decided I was far too ancient and lazy to opt for a career in housebreaking.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Hello, I'm Frances..."

Travelling across the country on a tight timetable and limited budget took some thought. Coach was the obvious solution to get to London but I didn't fancy the pre-8am service! My first "real" job interview...

Obviously I set out booted and suited. The details I left to The Editor, one of whose many roles in my life is to ensure that I don't leave the house looking like Coco The Clown. I still smuggled my bush-hat out to help with the rain... Blackberry charged, netbook swinging under my arm, off we went to catch the coach.

The last time coaches featured in my life was "on the National", the weekly movements of prisoners around the nation on hired buses. Dreary wagons, as I recalled, and the prospect of 3 hours to Victoria did not fill me with joy.That I wouldn't be handcuffed to the person sitting next to me eased my concerns somewhat. In the event, I decided I like coach travel, the modern type with loo and power-socket at least. Even if mine wasn't working...

The journey to the Big City ended at Victoria bus station which I exited and promptly got myself lost. Having dumped a foot in a puddle that would startle even Dr Foster, I retraced my steps and went on my way to the relevant Tube. Popping up several miles away I found myself late, disorientated and scrabbling to find the right bus connection. A flurry of phonecalls to inform the Editor of my progress and the Howard League of my intent to arrive, I continued, pausing here and there to ask shopkeepers the way. Bless 'em, no one sent me the wrong way!

I arrived at the Howard League looking like a drowned rat and substantially late.Hitting the entry buzzer to plead for sanctuary, Frances Crook rolled up, skipped over the pavement and let me in. "I'm Frances", she said, offering her hand. "I know", I grinned, "I'm Ben Gunn". "I know", she smiled.

The interview panel was hoiked back from whither they had wandered and put me through a brisk Q&A for about fifteen minutes. Given the opportunity to ask a question of my own, I had the temerity to ask, "Are you giving me an interview just to get me off your backs, or is this a genuine opportunity?" That was, I thought, a ballsy move if not a daft one!

The Main Man took it well, saying he was half expecting that question. Reassured that this was not a mere patina of interest, interview over I retreated back onto the mean streets of London...

Coach trips taken in the dark have a profoundly different quality to those in the harsh daylight. There is a subdued, even intimate atmosphere, with hushed conversations and careful rustling as people tried to settle for a long journey. Approaching the West, I found myself barracking the driver as he made periodic stops - "At least give us a clue where we are mate!" My destination found, I exited outside of a local pub bursting for a pee.

Barreling through their door I found myself sharing the floor with an ageing rocker wielding a fearsome guitar and apocalyptic amplifier. Loo found and dealt with, I decided against remaining for the show for fear of being blown through the wall with every chord matey struck on his axe. On the pavement outside I tried to keep warm, smoking furiously and watching the pubs windows rattle in their frames. The rain began to fall with more purpose and I wandered the road. Finding a quieter pub,I nipped in for a Fosters and sat in the warm, yet again pondering the chasm between my life a mere few weeks ago and today. Home called.

The Big Interview

I hasn't even made it home when my Blackberry buzzed - an Email from the Howard League to say that I had scraped through the first hurdle and made it through to the final round. My first reaction was, bugger, how can I afford the return trip in less than 48 hours?! My second was - get in!

My family having yet again bailed me out, I set off for London. This time, I was deeply nervous, probably more so than when I faced my last Parole Panel. This was all new and I couldn't but wonder if I could accept the position if it was offered - and whether I could do the job. It would mean staying in London 4 nights a week - and persuading my Probation officer to agree to that. Hmmm!

The journey was so much simpler by train, to Tube, to bus, to feet.... Navigating the transport system of London doesn't seem to faze me overly much, given this was only my second attempt to conquer the city by myself. My usual strategy of "if you don't know, ask someone who does" seems to be paying dividends when travelling.

I was so successful that I found myself near the Howard League building with a full hour in hand, and bone dry to boot. Still extremely nervous I parked myself in a small neighbourhood cafe and sank a few cups of coffee, resisting the fleeting thought of diving into the pub across the road for a pint to settle my nerves.

Thirty minutes in hand I wandered down the road and up to the top floor. Causing a brief consternation with my electric fag, I settled in to plot on the opposition for the job. There were two, or three...we were staggered in time and so I am no wiser. Settling into a soft, if uncomfortable, chair I briefly chatted to one of the other candidates. An impossibly pretty Bright Young Thing who seemed to provide a steady source for the Howard, I had serious doubts as to my situation - did I belong here?

The interview was split into two parts, the first being a written exercise. While all around me others had their fingers flying with frightening competence across their keyboards, I hacked in my usual fashion with two fingers. Still, I completed my task with five minutes in hand...and was called in to the interview itself.

Decorum suggests that I draw a veil over what was a private meeting, save to say that Francis herself chaired proceedings and took me by surprise in her stance on a particular issue - it was more radical than my own! As with my first interview, the talking bit was where I felt more at ease, settling into the discussion. All too soon, it was over and I took a long meandering wander in the general direction of homeward bound.

Fortunately I had the opportunity to meet friends for supper. Unfortunately, this meant negotiating the Tube during rush hour.... Despite the heaving masses, I found myself in very good company and being presented with my first proper steak. It did not survive the encounter. This being London, the meal was served on wooden squares and I had to fight the urge to ask if they needed a few quid to buy proper china?

Devoured, drank and talked, then into the night to return to Paddington. It is a constant source of amusement to the Editor that I assume that everywhere in London is but a few minutes walk away, and I am continually reminded that the city is the size of a county. And, I learned, I had transversed the lot of it, meaning a long trip beneath the surface to reach the train home.

Along the way I felt the urge for caffeine and nicotine - my main forms of sustenance - and popped to the surface at Canada Waters. It was dark, crisp, the station seemed to me to be a temple to the capabilities of modern engineering, a marvel. Alas, one that failed to incorporate a coffee dispensing service... I wandered onto the streets, my pleas for coffee being met by strangers with vague gestures pointing to distant parts...across bridges, alongside water and ducks, the vista sparsely populated. Parts of cities look so much more ethereal by night.

Still bereft of coffee I continued along to Paddington, to be met by a shambolic information screen that ordered me to "ask information" - with the Information Desks unmanned. Grrrrr. Having missed one train, my last possible transport began at 11.30 pm. And then They decided it would grind to a halt halfway home and turn into a bus service. Frantic calls to the Editor, who booked a taxi to meet me at the nearest station at my ETA - 1.30 am, yawn.

Which is where I duly presented myself, in the cold drizzle, the whole town seemingly abandoned. To be called by the taxi company, "sorry, we can't come, the driver decided to go home..." Hope he slept well, the git! More phonecalls and another taxi was found. I rolled into bed at 2.30 am.

I would have slept in but was awaiting The Call. This time, I didn't get the job. Boo! But the whole experience was fascinating and I appreciate that my many talents do not extend to having extensive experience of office life. Another "thing" is in the offing, though....